Posts Tagged ‘“Kenneth fields”’

Yvor Winters’s westward journey

Sunday, September 15th, 2013
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Loquat lover

“I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other,” wrote Yvor Winters (I wrote about him yesterday here).  According to poet Kenneth Fields, who was also Winters’s gardener for four years as a graduate student, “It’s usual to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.”  The incomparable Ken tells them all in “Winters’s Wild West,” in the current Los Angeles Review of Books, based on a talk he gave last April at Claremont McKenna College.  Ken traces his Winters’s path from Chicago, to Southern California, to Seattle,  to Chicago again, to New Mexico (where he not only taught, but also spent a couple years recovering from tuberculosis in a Santa Fe sanatorium), to Boulder and then to Moscow (Idaho, not Russia), and eventually (and finally) to his Los Altos home with the loquat tree in back.  I had never eaten a loquat before my visit to Winters’s widow, Janet Lewis.  Winters said “loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed,” which explains why.

loquatKen compares Robert Frost‘s late-life “To Earthward” with Winters’s “A Summer Commentary”:  “As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell.”

Ken’s piece is about as good an introduction to the legendary Winters as one will find anywhere. Read it here.

Black coffee, and a couple poems for the road

Monday, July 15th, 2013
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Poet and coffee.

We don’t usually think of poetry when we think of Tikkun, but maybe we should.  The “magazine dedicated to healing and transforming the world,” according to  its website, just published Kenneth Fields‘s poem, “Black Coffee at Noon,” early this month here.  Ken kindly allowed us to publish it on the Book Haven pages. (Thanks, Ken!)

Black Coffee at Noon

by Kenneth Fields

Black coffee at noon with fellow sufferers.
The bleak cups squeak in our hands.  So do the chairs.
We listen, fidget, smile, occasionally weep
In this ancient ritual of bitterness, joy,
And irritation.  We learn everyday the same
Text for the sermon:  Our compulsion, our need
Push us apart and hold us here—the cup
Ephemeral foam, the grounds at the bottom, the drink
Inside circling the translucent vessel, our fragile
Lives jittery with the freedom of pilgrimage.

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coffeeThe magazine also published Chana Bloch‘s “Night Stop” in March here, and Christian Wimans “Wartime Train,” after Hungarian poet and essayist Sándor Csoóri, here. Lots of traveling poems.

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013
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She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012
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"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu. The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat’s me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.


Lucille Clifton: “Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
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Fields, Clifton, Momaday, and Packer nattering (Photo: Steve Castillo)

NPR lists eight new poetry collections to look for this year, and the late Lucille Clifton comes out on top:

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I missed Clifton’s death in February 2010 in the pitiless onslaught of daily news events.  I had never been particularly drawn to her poems, but I was drawn to her person during her 2007 appearance at Stanford – I wrote about it here.  She appeared with a formidable team of aging writers, including N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Nancy Huddleston Packer (Jealous-Hearted Me), and poet Ken Fields (Classic Rough News).

As a journalist covering a panelist of speakers, it’s always a mystery how a story “happens” when you return to your computer and begin to tap on the keys. The best analogy is the old-time darkrooms, where you would watch the underwater film develop, and the object that had looked so prominent to your vision almost vanishes into the background, and something you hadn’t even noticed at the moment begins to appear under your fingertips.

So it was with that story.  One tries to be fair to everyone – but the person who spoke least may take the lead, and strong personalities sometimes fade precisely because their comments were a little off the dominant current of thought.  As the article begins to orient around themes, Clifton, who had been very impressive, began to disappear.  I stubbornly inserted a block of her quotes towards the end of the story, trying to reflect her powerful, uncompromising presence onstage.

Clifton had just described a poem that was “about other people dictating to you what you are to be.”

She said that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was “not broken by it,” trying instead “to bear it with grace and courage.” Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a “spy in the camp” of academia—”people are amazed I know anything at all.”

Then the line I have never forgotten:  “I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

The New York Times characterized her poetry as “moral intensity leavened by humor.” Her poetry “combined an intense, sometimes earthy voice with a streamlined economy of language. (She frequently did away with punctuation and capitalization as so much unwanted baggage.)”

Not greatly drawn to it, for the most part – just a matter of personal taste – except for this lyrical, enigmatic poem, which I found in her Pulitzer-nominated collection Good Woman, and I found myself returning to again and again:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.

Poet D.A. Powell: “Why not celebrate?”

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011
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D.A. Powell: Career as playwright nipped in the bud (Photo: Ken Fields)

Poet D.A. Powell didn’t begin as a poet.  Early on, he said, “I conceived of myself as a budding playwright.”  He told a noon gathering at Stanford today that he “has some sense of pride” in getting a “D” in his collegiate playwriting class — “but I may have gotten an ‘F,'” he admitted ruefully.

At that time, he was into “absurdist drama” — “plays where people sat around and talked about nothing — and talked about how nothing nothing was.”  The feedback: his plays lacked conflict.

Powell recalled that Sergei Eisenstein learned while editing and cutting his films that he needed to use first person, second person, and third person — something Euripides accomplished with a chorus. He recalled a portion of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin that shows, in the first shot, meat full of maggots, in another shot men looking through the entryway at the chef, and in the third shot, a bubbling caudron, to show the meat “is being cooked for consumption of sailors who are angry.  It’s emotional equivalent is anger coming to a boil.”

“The poet needs something else that balances the drama,” he said.  “You have to be willing to be the scenery and the antagonist as well.”  He quoted Robert Hass saying “a good poem contains its opposite.”

Powell’s first three books —  Tea (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004) — have been considered a trilogy for the AIDS pandemic.  His most recent book, Chronic (2009) received the Kingsley Tufts Award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.  He’s working on another, which he read from last night.  The photo comes to me courtesy of Ken Fields, who sent it to me after after Powell’s reading.  Alas, some other deadlines had consumed my evening, so I couldn’t attend, but I was able to catch a few minutes of today’s colloquium.  As I left, he was responding to a student who asked him about the distinction between art, popular culture, and camp in his work.

“When you’re being completely camp, you’re not completely aware of it,” he said.

He discussed the “doubt and mystery of one’s own aesthetics” and “finding note of authenticity within the detritus of society.”

Pay It Forward was a “terrible, terrible film,” he said — yet he recalled crying while watching it.  “Instead of being embarrassed by it, why not celebrate it?”

“Literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes” — Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
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In his library ... where else?

This is too much fun to pass up.  Ever hear of Nicolás Gómez Dávila (a.k.a. “Don Colacho“)?  I hadn’t, either. So thanks be to Anecdotal Evidence and Patrick Kurp for bringing him to my attention.  (There’s a super-duper website on Gómez Dávila here.)

The Columbian writer (1913-1994) led a life of leisure:

“Gómez Dávila generally only visited the office once a week at midday for about ten minutes, in order to tell the business manager to increase profits, before going out to lunch with friends at the Bogotá Jockey Club, where he was an active member, playing polo and even serving as an officer for a while. (He had to give up polo, though, after injuring himself on his horse—he was thrown off while trying to light a cigar.)”

He is known mostly for his aphorisms:

“Literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes.”

“Why do people write when they have nothing worthwhile to say and are unable to say it? The same reason we sing in the shower, when at least we have the courtesy to keep the door closed.”

“Clarity is courtesy. Muddle is ill-mannered.”

“The soul grows inwards.”

“Modern man deafens himself with music in order not to hear himself.”

“Journalism is writing exclusively for others.”

“Among the inventions of human pride, one will finally slip in which will destroy them all.”

“A genuine vocation leads the writer to write only for himself: first out of pride, then out of humility.”

“Whoever says that he ‘belongs to his time’ is only saying that he agrees with the largest number of fools at that moment.”

“The criterion of ‘progress’ between two cultures or two eras consists of a greater capacity to kill.”

“The word ‘modern’ no longer has an automatic prestige except among fools.”

“Individualism is the cradle of vulgarity.”

“Our last hope lies in the injustice of God.”

Patrick ends with a quote from Yvor Winters,  from his introduction to The Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969), which he edited with Kenneth Fields:

“Our best writers live fully in the knowledge that language is at once personal and public; they know that only by precisely controlling the public medium of language can they realize private experience. For each of us language is the essential intermediary between the isolated self and the world of others; rather than trammeling the mind and affections, it sets them free, giving them proper objects.”

Let me end with a final aphorism that intrigued me:

The artist does not compete with his fellow artists; he does battle with his angel.

It reminded me of a similar thought Robert Hass told me a decade ago:

You know, to write a book of poems is to wrestle with an angel, and the first part of the task is to figure out what angel you are wrestling.

More on Gómez Dávila here.  And more from my Hass interview in my forthcoming book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.
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Immortality, poetic and otherwise

Sunday, August 1st, 2010
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Abraham Verghese reviews Pulitzer prizewinning author Jonathan Weiner‘s curious book about a more secular brand of life everlasting, Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality, in the New York Times here:

“We get old because our ancestors died young,” Weiner writes. “We get old because old age had so little weight in the scales of evolution; because there were never enough Old Ones around to count for much in the scales.” The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of “detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”

I wondered if Weiner had ever studied Carl Jung, whose description of purpose during our long path on the descending arc of life is somewhat less glum, and makes more and more sense to me as the years progress.  The book concludes:

“The trouble with immortality is endless. The thought of it brings us into contact with problems of time itself — with shapeless problems we have never grasped and may never put into words. Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.”

Provider of grace notes

Most people don’t seem to know much why they’re alive, so I’ve always wondered why more-of-the-same has always held such allure. Leave it to the eloquent Dr. Verghese to supply the grace note:

As a young physician caught up in the early years of the H.I.V. epidemic, I was struck by my patients’ will to live, even as their quality of life became miserable and when loved ones and caregivers would urge the patient to let go. I thought it remarkable that patients never asked me to help end their lives (and found it strange that Dr. Kevorkian managed to encounter so many who did). My patients were dying young and felt cheated out of their best years. They did not want immortality, just the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect. What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal. Partial success in extending life might simply extend the years of infirmity and suffering — something that to some degree is already happening in the West.

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Finally.  Finally.  A biographer is thoroughly exploding the Myth of Amherst.  Emily Dickinson is not the Belle of Amherst … the Dickinson siblings struggled with volcanic emotions, as anyone exposed to Austin and Mabel can attest.  But was she epileptic?  Lyndall Gordon explores the possibility in Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (reviewed by Christopher Benfey) in the New York Times here.

I discussed the tormented Dickinson family in a Times Literary Supplement article, “Letter from Amherst,” in 2003.  Alas, it is behind a paywall now, never to be seen again except to subscribers.

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Patrick Kurp considers Helen Pinkerton‘s “Redtailed Hawk,” a poem she wrote for Kenneth Fields, at the blog “Anecdotal Evidence” here.  Patrick had his own encounter with a somewhat similar bird:

“The kestrel flew around the room close to the walls like a bat, in a tight orbit of disciplined panic. Moths bump off walls and lamps but raptors are always predators. Their competence is savage, even the kestrel’s, a small hawk with a songbird’s voice. He had escaped a park ranger readying him for visitors. …”

Read Pinkerton’s poem, from her collection Taken On Faith here.